Akron celebrates the return of LeBron James

by Ryan Isley

(Originally published on More Than  A Fan on July 14, 2014)

This past weekend in downtown Akron, the Italian-American Festival was held for the 67th straight year. Only for the 2014 version of the festival, the sun was brighter, the people were friendlier and hell, even the beer went down smoother. All because of three words that changed things on that Friday afternoon.

“I’m coming home.”

Yes, those three simple words changed Akron and all of Northeast Ohio.

Those were the words of LeBron James in his essay explaining where he would be signing after opting out of his contract with the Miami Heat and becoming a free agent. It had come down to returning to Miami or Cleveland, and this time, home was where LeBron’s heart was.

AEveryone had been on pins and needles waiting for LeBron to make his decision and inform us all of where he would be playing in 2014 and beyond, but for days, all we heard were rumors of meetings and speculation of when the decision would be made. We refreshed Twitter at what had to be a record pace, and even crashed LeBron’s website on more than one occasion.

We went from euphoric to worried based on every rumor that was floated out there, no matter the validity. Some people even tracked the private plane of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, forcing the owner to make his plane no longer traceable to the public.

We were told that the decision would be announced on his website at this time or that time. We were told that the police were informed to have heightened security around LeBron’s Bath Township home on Thursday afternoon because an announcement would be coming at 3:30 pm – as in 330 – the area code of Akron, his hometown. It all seemed logical, if not even genius.

Only it never happened.

For a week, minutes turned into hours and hours turned into days. As the saga dragged into Friday, people were wondering if it would not have been a better idea to just do another television special, if only to give people an actual timetable as to when the announcement would be made.

And then out of nowhere, it happened. Shortly after noon on Friday, July 11th, the tweet we were all waiting for was posted. But it wasn’t from LeBron James. It was from Sports Illustrated. Lee Jenkins had scored the exclusive with LeBron and helped the 29-year-old superstar pen an essay entitled “I’m Coming Home.” The kid from Akron who spent his first seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers was headed to back to where it all started.

Like that, the speculation was over and the celebration in Northeast Ohio (and crying in Miami) began.

I was interested to see the reaction in LeBron’s hometown, because even though the hate towards LeBron in Akron was not as fierce as it was in Cleveland, there were still people who harbored resentment towards him. When I would wear my “Witness” shirt over the past few years, I would get as many dirty looks as I would nods of approval. There were those like myself who had proclaimed our support for LeBron over the past few years, but there was still a portion of the city who vowed they would never forgive him for leaving, especially with how it transpired.

Once the announcement was made, I tossed on my LeBron James No.23 Cavaliers shirt – it had been waiting for days to be worn – and headed to the grocery store with a smile plastered on my face that even a few idiotic drivers couldn’t erase. As I walked through the store, people were coming up to me and giving me high-fives as they exclaimed their excitement for the return of their hometown kid.  This was not completely surprising to me – after all, people in Akron had been quicker to forgive LeBron than those in Cleveland over the past few years – but it still caught me a little off guard. While I knew the excitement might be over the top, I underestimated that everyone would already know what had happened. After all, the announcement came in the middle of the day on a Friday.

That’s when I decided that my next stop on Friday had to be downtown, where it was the perfect night for a festival. Wearing the same No.23 Cavaliers shirt, I headed down to meet up with a friend for a few hours. The first thing that I saw once arriving was that the marquee on the Akron Civic Theater had been changed to read “Welcome Home LeBron.” Walking around the festival, everyone started counting LeBron shirts and jerseys, and they were plentiful, as were Cavaliers shirts being worn by people who probably no longer owned a LeBron one.

It isn’t hyperbole when I say that people genuinely seemed nicer over the course of the evening. There were random high-fives and fist bumps between total strangers, and conversations between those same strangers about Cavaliers basketball. In July. It was as if the Cavaliers had just won the NBA title, not gone 33-49 this past season and 97-215 over the past four seasons combined. I returned to the festival on Saturday evening wearing my “Witness” shirt and it was more of the same.

As I was leaving on Saturday, I ran into Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, who happened to just be walking around. As I went to talk to him and tell him it was a good week for the city, he shook my hand and agreed. He then proceeded to stand there and talk to me for about five minutes about LeBron, the city,  and the Cavs. He told me he wasn’t surprised that LeBron was returning home, and that he had supported no matter what the hometown hero did. It reminded me of the night of “The Decision” when I interviewed Mayor Plusquellic about 90 minutes before LeBron announced his intentions.

“I wear three hats in this situation,” Plusquellic told me that night. “I have the family hat, the personal hat and the Mayor hat. As a family man, I understand that he has to do what is best for his family and that does not always mean going with the most money.

“As the Mayor, of course I hope he stays. He has been good for the city of Akron and even if he leaves I believe he will still be committed to the city. Most of all, I just hope he makes the right decision for him.”

Another guy who never wavered in his support of LeBron James was the guy who coached him for his first two years at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, Keith Dambrot. The current men’s basketball head coach at the University of Akron, Dambrot continued to support “his guy” despite LeBron’s decision to leave the Cavaliers.

“I love LeBron, I don’t care what anybody thinks,” Dambrot told me in November 2010, just months after LeBron’s departure. “When you live in the situation that he lives in, people are never going to be totally happy with you. I wouldn’t be the coach here if it wasn’t for him. I am going to back my guy regardless of what he does.”

I wish I could say that I stood loyally by LeBron from day one the way that Plusquellic and Dambrot did. Instead, it took me about a year. I rooted for the Dallas Mavericks to win the championship in that first year that LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teamed up. I was still mad over the way LeBron left and that the Cavaliers would now be irrelevant in the NBA landscape.

And then something funny happened. After the Heat lost that series to Dallas, LeBron returned home. To Akron. He held his annual bike-a-thon for the kids and donated money to the Boys and Girls Club of Akron. Those gestures made me realize that LeBron didn’t leave his hometown, rather he left the team for which he was playing. To me, that was a simple distinction. He still cared about Akron, and that was enough for me.

Starting then, I was happy for LeBron each time something positive happened, like winning his third and fourth NBA MVP awards or another trip to the NBA Finals. I was happy for him when he won his first NBA title and just as happy that he won the second. After rooting against LeBron and the Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals, I found myself rooting for them in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals.

When I would go out to watch the games, some people understood where I was coming from, as they were from Akron as well. I understood to an extent where people were still upset, but I tried to remind them that LeBron was still from our city, the one where we were sitting in at that moment, watching him on the NBA’s biggest stage. Some people were not receptive of the concept, with some of them being respectful about it while others spewed ignorance.

Some people refused to let go of their feelings of hate towards LeBron and let me hear it as often as they could. It seemed as if the number of those people went down from 2012 to 2013 to 2014, but there were still those who had to be vocal. I refused to back down, with sometimes the evenings turning confrontational. But I didn’t care – I wasn’t going to be pushed around just because I was supportive of LeBron.

That is why I felt the need to see the reaction in Akron. I had to see for myself if the mood had changed and if LeBron was now going to be universally accepted in the city in which he grew up. I had to see if wearing my LeBron gear was now acceptable once again and if I would receive more nods of approval than dirty looks. Was all forgiven by the people in his hometown?

The answer was a resounding ‘yes.’ The fans in Akron had seemingly forgotten that night in July of 2010 and were able to look past the four years in which LeBron played for the Heat. It was like LeBron had donned a black suit, white shirt, black tie and a pair of Ray Bans and had come into possession of one of the neuralyzers from “Men in Black” to use it on the people of Akron and Northeast Ohio.

But it wasn’t the nueralyzer that was used to erase those memories of the past four years. This time, it was the written word. More specifically, the words of LeBron that appeared in the well-written, thought out piece for Sports Illustrated, making it clear how much he loved his hometown and how he felt about Northeast Ohio. The 951 words all but trumped his made-for-television special from 2010 and seemed to heal the deep wounds left when he announced on national television that he was leaving.

The excerpts where he showed that he understood Northeast Ohioans, ones like “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have,” resonated with those who have spent their entire lives here.  He told them that he wanted to give them hope, that he realized now what he didn’t realize four years ago – “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball.”

He said that while he still would have left for Miami in 2010, he wishes he would have done it differently. He had said this before, but this time it weighed heavier because it was coming directly from him to the people he had hurt. Those words that came from LeBron James made his return more important than his departure.

In 2010, LeBron told the world on national television “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.” In 2014, he told the people of Northeast Ohio “I’m coming home.”

It took 14 words to become a villain and just three words to return to being a hero.

Welcome home, LeBron – your fans await with open arms.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryanisley23@gmail.com You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.


LeBron’s True Plan for Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland Cavaliers

by Ryan Isley (Originally posted on November 1, 2014)

LeBron James just might be in the midst of his greatest plan yet. And so far, he has played it perfectly.

It all started by saying he wished he should have handled “The Decision” differently. Then he began dropping little hints over the past couple of seasons that he might be interested in a return to Cleveland to play for the Cavaliers. His next move was to opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat, which he did. This of course led to speculation of a return. Then on July 11th, speculation turned to reality with the letter he wrote in Sports Illustrated to announce his return to the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland.

The four-time NBA MVP continued to do and say the right things when he mic-dropped at his welcome home party in Akron.

After that, it was on to the commercials. He did one for Beats by Dre, where his mom Gloria James narrates about his return home. There was the Sprite commercial that chronicled LeBron’s first true home game at Patterson Park in Akron. And then the big one dropped just hours before LeBron and the Cavs took the floor for their regular season opener. It was a Nike ad all about Cleveland and coming together.

It all felt too good to be true. And it is. Because it is all just a hoax. No, LeBron’s plan is not to bring the city of Cleveland a championship. It never was. His real plan is to ensure that Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert NEVER wins one. This is all an elaborate plot to set up Gilbert and exact his revenge for Gilbert’s letter from 2010.

You think LeBron has forgotten about that letter? The one where Gilbert called him “THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’” and called what LeBron did a “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal”? Oh, LeBron hasn’t forgotten. Nor has he forgiven. He also doesn’t forget the way he was treated by the majority of Cleveland fans and media after he left. Those same people who are right back to supporting him now. But he remembers their true colors.

LeBron has reeled everyone into his trap, Gilbert included. He has put his plan in place and all of the pieces have fit like a glove. His goal is to completely sabotage Gilbert and the Cavaliers and make sure the cupboard is all but empty when he leaves, sans NBA championship.

Remember when LeBron signed a two-year deal with the Cavs and people were worried that it might be so he can leave again following the 2015-16 season? Yeah, all part of the plan. That trade for Kevin Love? Part of the plan.  But the part that worked out even better than LeBron could have hoped this offseason was that the Cavs gave up Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, plus a first round draft pick to get Love. That’s right – the Cavs traded the last two number one overall draft picks who are 21 and 19 years old, respectively.

That’s when LeBron’s plan went into overtime. After the Love trade, LeBron talked Love into not signing an extension, even though Love’s contract expires after this current season. The two have discussed the plan, and Love will be leaving after one season in Cleveland. After all, that letter not only hit home with LeBron, it resonated throughout the league with players. He also had to talk Tristan Thompson into not accepting a longer deal with the Cavs, so Thompson could become a restricted free agent. That way, the Cavs will probably have to overpay to keep the 23-year-old they took with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft.

Now, think back to those commercials we discussed earlier. Sure, the last one was all about the city of Cleveland, but the first two were focused on LeBron’s hometown of Akron. This comes as no surprise, as LeBron has supported his hometown even when he was a part of the Miami Heat. This part of the plan was never questioned, but sent a message nonetheless. LeBron was returning, but cared more about making sure Akron was taken care of than making sure Cleveland was helped.

LeBron even took the step of making a nice gesture of wearing a Browns hat when he attended a Browns game a few weeks ago and has made appearances at Browns practices. Again, this part of the plan came easily, because he is friends with Johnny Manziel, so nobody gave a second thought that this might be just some sort of scam. But LeBron doesn’t care about the Browns. Just like he doesn’t care about the Indians. Hell, he wasn’t even a Cavs fan in his youth. It is well-documented that LeBron is a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and of course Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. So why care about Cleveland teams now? It isn’t because he is happy to be back, it is to pull more fans into his web. And it has worked.

The toughest part of the plan though? Actually making sure that the Cavs don’t win a championship with the team they put on the floor every night. This explains his 5-for-15 shooting and eight turnovers in the season opening loss to the New York Knicks. He led the Cavs to a win over the Bulls on Friday night, but still shot under 50%. All part of the plan. LeBron isn’t going to lose games on purpose, but will do just enough to make sure this team isn’t the number one seed in the Eastern Conference when the playoffs begin.

The playoffs will be where he pulls off the best part of the trick. The Cavs will be a favorite by many to win the championship, but LeBron is going to make sure the Cavs lose in the first round not only this season, but next season. That way, the team makes the playoffs which means they can’t get into the NBA Draft Lottery with a chance at a high draft pick but they also bow out of the playoffs early without a shot at a title.

After their first round exit in 2016, LeBron will announce that he is not going to sign long-term in Cleveland and will take his talents elsewhere to continue his pursuit of championships. While he will join a team that is already championship ready, the Cavs will be stuck worse than they were in 2010. Imagine the letter that Gilbert will write in the summer of 2016. And to think – had he not written the one in 2010, LeBron would have never launched this plan for revenge.

Revenge is a dish best served cold. And LeBron James is serving up a frozen cup of it for Dan Gilbert.

(Obviously, you guys realize this is just a joke, right? I in no way believe LeBron has actually hatched a plan to set up Dan Gilbert for the ultimate revenge – Ryan.)

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryanisley23@gmail.com. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.